The Victorville City Council this week spontaneously removed Councilwoman Blanca Gomez from the council dais during the course of its Tuesday night meeting. The actual vote upon which the action was taken is open to dispute, with those witnessing the event coming up with varying tallies of 3-to-1 or 3-to-2 or 2-to-2 or 2-to-1.
Gomez was then escorted out of council chambers by Sheriff’s Captain Rick Bessinger, who serves as Victorville’s police chief, and two deputies, less than an hour before the meeting drew to a close.
The action came during the council’s discussion relating to entering into a contractual relationship with a consultant, after Councilwoman Debra Jones interrupted Gomez as she importuned her colleagues against making the hiring.
The matter at hand, which related to Deputy City Manager George Harris II’s recommendation that the city hire Procure America Inc. to seek out potential savings in areas such as electrical usage, telecommunications, data plans, waste handling and recycling, and financial and treasury services, began with a discussion that had seemed civil enough.
After the item was introduced, Gomez questioned the efficacy and value of the arrangement with Procure America.
“What’s the purpose of this review cost service?” Gomez asked. “This is the first of its kind in the city. When was the last time the city had consulting services for cost reviews? What does it mean that the contractor will receive 50 percent of the net savings realized?”
Gomez continued, “The next question: Is this an independent contractor? Where is their experience, résumé and other credibility reference contacts? Why isn’t the legal department announcing these contracts in the general fund? Mrs. [Councilwoman Debra] Jones, doesn’t this concern you? And Mr. [Councilman Jim] Cox, doesn’t this concern you? Why wasn’t an RFQ [request for qualifications] put [out] for these types of services? Please explain in one or two paragraphs the need for this consultant. Doesn’t this concern you that it wasn’t under an RFQ? We usually do RFQs for everything.”
Harris endeavored to justify having the city enter into the contract with Procure America.
“This is a consultant that solicits multiple agencies,” Harris said. “Their primary service is to go in and look at your utility services, namely your electric bill and your telephone bill to make sure that we are being billed properly by those agencies and, as a result of being such a large entity with multiple meters for all of those services, they come in to do an evaluation to determine that we’re not being levied any unnecessary charges that are due to us as a pubic agency in those locations, as well as making sure any fixtures we are being charged for are being appropriately charged for. This consultant works on a contingency basis. If they do not find anything, they don’t get paid anything. And so, as we’ve been evaluating the use of this particular service over the last year-and-a-half or so since we were first approached by them, really just evaluating if there’s any risk in actually securing this contract and having them go in and do that, they carry the risk. If they go through the evaluation and don’t find any savings, then, quite frankly, they do that at their risk and then there’s no cost borne by the city to pay them anything. In an effort to make sure we are paying our bills effectively and being charged appropriately by those entities, we thought it would be a worthwhile venture to go ahead and let them demonstrate whether or not they could provide that service. Before you tonight is a one-year contract so they can actually prove themselves to us and see if they can find anything. If they do find something, then the city council can reevaluate and extend the contract and continue to have them monitor those bills for us on our behalf. It was relatively unsolicited. They assume all of the risk, meaning if they don’t find anything, there is no obligation for us to pay them anything. There is an evaluation period of one year. What I would venture to do is if they do have findings, then I would return to [the] council to have that particular payment, after we’ve had a chance to evaluate the findings, be able to validate the savings and negotiate as best we can to make sure that what we are being charged by the firm is appropriate based upon the savings they are yielding through their investigation.”
Councilman Jim Cox appeared skeptical about the terms of the contract, including the way in which Procure America could define and take credit for savings, as well as granting the company a commission equal to half of the savings it netted for the city.
“I read this very carefully, trying to determine what this consultant is going to do,” said Cox, who for 32 years had been Victorville’s city manager. “I realize that staff is saying that ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained. They [Procure America] have to earn it.’ But I don’t think that’s what the contract says.”
Cox asserted that the contract could conceivably allow the company to evaluate a survey that found the public would not object to City Hall being closed on Fridays, then make a recommendation to that effect, and when the city made such a closure and saved “millions and millions” of dollars, sue the city for half that savings.
Cox said city staff could ferret out savings on its own. “We have a very bright staff,” he said. “We have a pubic that tells us what we need to do. I have confidence in the staff that if there’s savings to be had, that they can do it.” He objected to giving Procure America the rate of fifty percent of the savings. “I can’t possibly think that’s a good deal,” Cox said.
It appeared that Councilwoman Rita Ramirez-Dean was leaning against approving the contract, a sign that Harris’s recommendation in favor of Procure America would be rejected. Nonetheless the contract appeared to be favored by Councilwoman Debra Jones and Mayor Gloria Garcia. Jones made a motion that the city approve the contract with Procure America, which was seconded by Garcia.
Before the council took a vote on the matter, Garcia asked the council for further comments. Gomez accepted the invitation and held forth, attempting to put on the record all of the reasons she could think of for the city to not get into a relationship with Procure America.
“So it sounds to me that we’re giving the treasurer’s job and the financial department job duties to the contractor,” Gomez said. “Would that be the case? That’s what I hear. What good is it to save money in the general fund, for example, when we’re expending $19.6 million in the legal fund and asking for inner-loans and transfers because the airport can’t sustain itself with the current revenues? I don’t appreciate the fact that data is rarely provided, if ever produced to the city council. Instead, the city council receives recommendations that the city council can’t seem to rationally vote on independently. To staff, this is not about the departments or the divisions. I am talking about the leaders of the executive team, so please don’t take my harsh words [to be] for the employees. This is directed more at the executive team that manage in a manner where they act as the elected officials.” She chided the city council for not insisting on staff providing it with “some sort of data where the facts are weighed. Those are borderline methods that are used, in my opinion, by people who are dictators and self-interested in a government that tends to ignore democracy and the privilege of a community to be actively involved.”
When Gomez brought up the settlement the city reached with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the proceedings very quickly went to hell. That settlement related to civil charges lodged against the city and its city manager, Keith Metzler, alleging the city had overvalued hangars at Southern California Logistics Airport when it used them as collateral to issue bonds. Gomez’s had been the lone vote against entering into the settlement, at which time she had enunciated her belief the city should allow the matter to go to trial so the truth of what had occurred could be revealed to the public.
As Gomez was attempting to make a comparison of the function Procure America would be hired to engage in involving the true value of services rendered and the manner in which the hangar valuations were phonied up, she was interrupted by Councilwoman Jones, who could be heard calling for a “point of order.” As both women continued to try to speak over one another, their words jumbled, and no sense of what was being said could be discerned from the cacophony.
Jones, seeming at last to realize her words were unintelligible against the backdrop of Gomez continuing her statement, stopped speaking. Gomez at that point objected to the interruption, saying she had a right to make her statement.
“I have three minutes and you cannot interrupt my three minutes,” Gomez said.
“Ms. Gomez, you are wrong,” City Attorney Andre de Bortnowky said. “She is allowed to interrupt your three minutes for a point of order.” .
“How?” Gomez asked.
“I’m giving you a legal opinion,” de Bortnowsky said. “A point of order trumps it [Gomez’s right to hold the floor]. She’s brought up a point of order. The mayor should decide on the point of order.”
“Then have her removed,” Mayor Garcia, who has had differences with Gomez in the past, said.
“At this point you are starting to disrupt the meeting,” de Bortnowsky said.
Councilwoman Jones pressed the issue. “Madame Mayor, I stated my point of order,” Jones said. “I called the question. Councilwoman Gomez is refusing to yield herself to our policies. She is in fact being disruptive. At this point we’re not able to proceed with business. I ask that she be removed in accordance with Government Code 36836.”
“Have her removed,” Garcia said.
Captain Bessinger, who was seated at the far right end of dais, walked behind the other seated officials and spoke with Gomez before returning to his place on the dais.
The council then voted on Jones’ motion to remove Gomez. It was clear that both Jones and Garcia voted in favor of it. Councilwoman Ramirez-Dean voted against it. Gomez’s microphone had been cut off, and her vote was not audible. How Cox voted was not clear, but Garcia interpreted his vote as being in favor of removing Gomez.
Gomez continued to argue about the procedure being used against her. Many of her comments were inaudible because her microphone had been cut out intermittently. Two sheriff’s deputies then came into the area behind the council dais as Bessinger stood and approached Gomez.
“For goodness sake, aren’t we proud,” Cox said.
Shortly thereafter, the video was cut off. When it resumed, Gomez was no longer seated at the dais. At that point, the time had eclipsed 10 p.m., the deadline set for the discontinuing of council business. It did not appear that the item relating to the consulting contract with Procure America had been voted upon.